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Idaho Backcountry Elk Hunt to Remember

All images by Mike French

Rick Hubbell and I take to the backcountry for a big bull elk with Heaven’s Gate Outfitters.

Since graduation my friend, Jim Cleghorn and I started a construction company; which is thankfully becoming more profitable as the days go by. As the general manager I do most of the running around and am in charge of the day-to-day operations, which keeps me at a constant stress level landing right between pulling my hair out, and holding some kind of public protest demonstration. Nonetheless, and to the dismay of Jim’s stress level, when the temps started falling I was on my way to Riggins, Idaho to guide for Andy Savage and Heaven’s Gate Outfitters.

Rick's Idaho bull


I showed up to camp, a brisk 16-mile horse ride into the bottom of Idaho’s famous Seven Devils mountain range, and met up with the other guides and Rick Hubbell, my first week hunter. Rick was the type of client I love to guide. Incredibly nice, honest, and willing to work his butt off for a shot.

His first words upon meeting me: “So you’re the boss for the week eh?”

Exactly what I wanted to hear. Too often in a guide’s life do our flatlander hunting partners seem to know exactly how and when to hunt for an elk; though curiously most have never seen a live elk. Having a guy like Rick for the first week was a blessing. Opening day I opened the flap of our wall tent to see some of the most depressed horses in the world calling to me from the corral. Freezing rain decided to pay us a visit and brought 30 mile per hour winds along for the ride. It was going to be a rough one.

Each guide and client took to horseback hours before light with high hopes and good spirits, only to return by noon with looks of dejection and curses for the cold weather. Day two brought cold temperatures, clear skies, and renewed spirits on everyone’s faces.

Caleb Gaddis, an HGO guide with more mountain knowledge and skills than years on the job, was nice enough to let Rick and I tag along to put some eyes on massive old growth burn the elk had been using for cover through the storm. Within minutes of setting up the spotting scopes the sun crested the ridge and cast light on our mission.


Almost immediately Rick whispered, “I’ve got one.”

Caleb and I nearly spit as we both interrogated him for a location, only to be told, “Ummmm, I lost it.”

Quickly we swept our glasses over the burn until spotting a lone calf some 1,200 yards away. As the light came over the ridge one elk after another stepped from the broken timber and into sight.

Ten minutes later I broke the strained silence with my favorite words, “I’ve got a bull.”

The bull of a lifetime, his nose in the rear of a hot cow, walked into the open, stopping to announce himself so loudly we could hear him seconds after watching him bugle through the scopes. Quickly we devised a plan to cover the 1,200 plus yards to the bull. The burn layed out with a high ridge on the left and a deep draw on the right, with the open burn and elk in the middle. Caleb and I both agreed the draw was where the elk were heading, and in a hurry. It was going to take some serious effort to get in on the bull. Grabbing Rick by his shoulder, we sprinted as fast as I could drag him down the ridge towards the bull.

As we ran through the fresh snow a wind gust came up from the draw and smacked me in the face; time for a change of plans. I grabbed Rick without a word and we beelined it for the bottom of the draw, trying to get below the elk, geting the new wind direction back in our favor.

Backcountry camp


Wind in our face, we worked up the draw to the last spot the bull was in. As we approached the musk of the elk found my nose and I motioned to Rick that the elk were close. Just then, the loudest bugle I’ve ever heard erupted from the trees 35 yards in front of us. I quietly thanked the bull for giving himself up, and pulled Rick to a place where he could see the thicket the bull was calling from.

“I can see him,” said Rick.

“Well, SHOOT!”

Just then, the bull looked from around a pine tree, spotting Rick’s movement, turned and bolted from sight. Watching the lead cow bark and line the elk out for a quick escape I frantically dug into my chest pocket, pulling out my diaphragm call and letting three short cow calls. I watched as the lead cow dig her feet into the snow and turn like a cutting horse to the sound of the calls. As they came running back to Rick and I, the bull was bringing up the rear. The cows cleared timber at roughly 40 yards, walking parallel to us but below our elevation.

As the bull came broadside to us I was standing behind Rick. I let out one sharp cow call and the bull stopped in his tracks.

“SHOOT!” I screamed as I squeezed Rick by the shoulder.

Rick’s .300 WSM hit the bull high behind the shoulder breaking his back and sending him sprawling down the steep hill. Running to the last place I saw the elk, I desperately looked down the ridge for the bull. Looking left and right of a small pine tree in front of me, I was distraught. The bull was nowhere in sight. I yelled for Rick to help me.

Rick ran to my position, looking puzzled, and said, “He’s right there!”

Walking around the offensive pine tree I laid eye one the biggest bull I’ve ever been fortunate enough to put hands on. The massive typical 6×6 laid crumbled under a downed log.

The feelings of the hunt swept over both Rick and I. I stood with my arms stretched wide, the biggest smile across my face, absolutely in love with the outdoors.

I am lucky enough to call that work.

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Idaho Backcountry Elk Hunt to Remember